Scripture Readings: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
A very human trait that often leads to problems is comparing oneself to others. We may wish to be more like others or maybe less like them. We may wish we had what they have or glad that we do not. It might be called “living in the comparison,” as someone I know once expressed it. In the end, comparing oneself to others does not really prove to be a very fruitful exercise, for we are who are, and comparing ourselves with others usually serves no useful purpose, for we cannot be others, but only ourselves. How’s that for basic psychology 101?
Maybe most of us do this comparing with others to some extent or another. Should we be surprised that the disciples of Jesus did likewise? Does human nature really change over the course of centuries? In a sense we might say “thank goodness, no,” for we can learn how others in the past, or present, deal with the same kind of less-than-useful tendency of living in the comparison.
On the other hand, to wish to be like others in their virtues and humbly striving to imitate them, as we try to do in the case of the saints, for example, or other good and holy models, is a laudatory practice. By imitating what is good and holy in others we hopefully can grow in goodness and holiness too.
The disciples in the Gospel passage for this Sunday were no doubt alarmed and probably ashamed when their Master, who presumably overheard their arguments as they walked along, eventually asked them what they were discussing. They had to admit the topic was: who among us is the greatest? They all seemed to want the praise of others, but without the effort it takes to truly be praised for goodness and holiness. The appetite for glory seemed to be with them.
Jesus does not condemn or denounce the misguided disciples in their futile arguments. Rather, he shows them what real greatness is all about, and he uses a child as the example. We know that in those times children basically had no rights, position or privileges in society. They were socially at the bottom of the rung, considered servants of their parents.
In the presence of his disciples, though, Jesus elevates the position of a child to a place of honor. The candor, simplicity and docility of a child is not considered a handicap in Jesus’ mind, but a help to really meeting God and possessing the right attitude toward others.
Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God? Not necessarily the healthy, wealthy, beautiful or highly educated, says the Lord, but the humble and lowly of heart, who know their need of God and are unafraid to admit it.
Worthy of the Kingdom of God are those who instead of asserting their rights or trampling on others, willingly empty themselves of self-seeking and take the lowly position normally associated with a servant or a child.
These are the greatest in the Kingdom of God, the Lord is telling us today. That does not mean allowing oneself to be trampled upon by others, but being a person of peace, living a simple, prayerful and unselfish life.
In the end, it is Jesus himself who is the model of this sort of self-emptying and meekness of heart. Christ came to serve not to be served, and demonstrated that crucial trait in all that he said and did. God took the form of a servant in Jesus Christ, lowering himself, to share our human nature that he might raise it up and make us partakers in divinity.
If we want to be filled with the life and power of God, and there really cannot be a more attractive way of being, then we need to be ready and willing to empty ourselves of everything that might stand in the way. That would include obstacles such as pride, self-seeking, vanity and contempt of others.
Put another way, God is seeking empty vessels so he can fill them with glory, love and power. The big question is whether or not we are ready and humble enough to admit our need of God and then letting God be the center of our existence. Do we instead insist on ourselves as the center of the universe?
By the cross he bore for our salvation, Christ the Lord redeemed the world. In this he triumphed over sin and death once and for all.
Christ invites us to conform our life to his will and to follow the way of humble service of others. We are not called to compare ourselves with others, but to find the good in others and imitate that.
In the lives of the saints, and those with whom we live, who may indeed be saints as well, we are being given models. Let us imitate the Lord and look to the lowly and humble of heart that we may all be filled with the life and love of God.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB